Green Hills Literary Lantern







(originally published in West Branch)



The day the war ended I put on my sister Carla’s feathered hat, her twin, Laura’s, varsity twirler’s jacket, a lace shawl of my mother’s, my father’s old gardening boots, then stood in the middle of our front lawn and blew a tin bugle at the honking cars.


By the next summer my ten-year-old life reeled with change. A self-service supermarket had opened beneath red, white, and blue banners on Broad Street. Prefabricated houses covered the vacant lot that had been our ball field. Figures on a tiny grey screen glowed from the window of Pete’s Radio. Carla and Laura, two years out of high school, quit their jobs in our town to catch the 7:38 each morning to the city. My mother was there too, in a hospital for months of recuperation from intricate vein stripping surgery meant to control her high blood pressure. My dad had died suddenly the previous November, a week before he was supposed to decorate my bike for the Armistice Day parade. To fill the hours, I slept till midmorning and wandered to the edges of the town in the afternoons, unable to make myself join the other kids in their games.




One afternoon on my way to shop for the groceries Carla and Laura had listed on their flowered notepaper, I discovered Tom Maxville. When I stopped to ponder the white coating that blanked the windows of a long abandoned store on Main Street, a young man, really an adolescent, staggered down the alley beside the building trying to balance a ladder under one arm and carry a bucket of paint and wide brush in his free hand.


Untended brown curls spilled over his ears and forehead, down the back of his neck. The clothing flapped about his scrawny frame, a tee shirt and dungarees smeared with grease, splotched with yellow paint. With his large head puffed out even more top-heavy by all the hair, he looked like he might snap in two.


As he swayed back and forth, his face scrunched into such an exaggerated grimace I would have laughed if he fell. But when he set down paint and ladder, he met my eyes and grinned so hard I forgot my usual shyness with teenagers and returned his “Hi!” I peered to see through the streaks of whitewash on the inside of the windows. For all the years I could remember the store had contained nothing but a dusty counter and broken boxes.


“What’s going on here?” I asked him.


“The future!” he proclaimed.




He laughed so wide-mouthed his eyes disappeared in a squint above his grease-dabbed cheeks.


“The newest and the best!” He was almost singing.


“Best what?”


“Automobiles! We’re making history here.”




I noticed the rips in his tee shirt and gave him a doubting look.


“Kaisers and Frazers!” His voice rang.


“What are those?”


“Thirty years from now you remember you asked me that. It’ll be a good joke to play on yourself.”


“You’re making those names up.” I suspected he was teasing me.


“We’d never have won the war if it hadn’t been for Henry J. Kaiser. He built more ships than anybody. And now he’s making cars.”


“Who’s Frazer?”


“A friend of his.”


That impressed me, two friends building cars together. But I still wasn’t convinced.


“How do you know your cars are going to be any good?”


“Because they’re using all the new know-how. They don’t have any of the old stuff to forget.”


“What do yours look like?”


“That’s a secret.”


“Do you know?”




Tom put a finger to his lips and whispered,


“But I’ve got to watch out for spies.”


“The war’s over.”


“From the other car companies. They’re eating their hearts out.”


 I asked Tom if he was going to be the salesman.


“Me?” That tickled him. “I’m only seventeen.”


He explained he was working as all-around helper and handyman, pretty much on his own until his boss came back from a training program at headquarters ready to sit back and start filling our order blanks. Right now he had to paint the building. Grey chips were flicking away from the wooden frames around the windows and from the cinder-block foundation.


I blurted an offer to help:


“Sure. You can scrape with me. But don’t make a mess of yourself.”


He handed me a tool and introduced himself, amazing me by reaching out to shake my hand. We worked side by side for an hour, Tom chattering on about how in a few years the world would be filled with Kaisers and Frazers. Then I remembered my sisters’ grocery list and had to run off before the store closed.




The next morning I dressed in old clothes dug from my mother’s rag bag and dashed out of the house a few minutes after Laura and Carla left to catch their train, the two of them carrying white purses and striding identically in their high heels. I had to wait until 9 for Tom, drawing in the dirt with a stick and wondering how I would explain my being there. But he just passed me the scraper as if I were expected.


Even I could see that Tom was a sloppy painter. Blobs of yellow spattered the sidewalk, spotted the window glass. He dug after loose bristles with his fingernails but whistled happily, oblivious of any mistakes.


After working for an hour or so, he reached into the pocket of his dungarees for a Clark’s Bar, twisted it in two, and handed me half in a paint-wet wrapper.


“I hope helping me isn’t keeping you from anything,” he said.


“Like what?”


“Playing ball. Marbles. Cowboys and Indians.”


“I don’t like that stuff anymore.”


“How come? What about your buddies?”


My face burned.


“We had a fight.”


Tom took a boxing pose, pumped out left jabs and swung an uppercut right into the air. “Wham! Pow! I hope you gave them bloody noses.”


“It wasn’t like that.”


The sweet pulp of candy backed up in my throat. But Tom didn’t ask for an explanation. His face settled into seriousness. “So what do you do all day, Bobby?”


“I walk around a lot.” My daily routine was to start down Elizabeth Street, turn left on Church, over to Maple, pass up and back the length of Broad, and head home on Main and Division. Our town was so small I covered the entire circuit in forty minutes, even when I had to make shopping stops. “I like to look in the store windows,” I added, particularly attracted by the glitter of Praeger’s Jewelry and Wallace’s Clothing, where headless torsos displayed dark suits much like those that hung in my father’s closet.


“What does your mom think about you walking around all day and wearing holes in your sneakers?”


“She’s been in the hospital all summer.” For a second I thought Tom would reach out and touch me. But he remembered his paint-smeared fingers.


“I’ll bet she’s going to be fine.”


“Something’s wrong with her blood pressure.”


Tom took the piece of candy wrapper from me, wadded both halves into his pocket, and seized the paint brush again. “Well, you can help me whenever you feel like it.”




Although he seemed to be working hard, it took days for Tom to finish painting the front of the building, by then his dungarees more yellow than blue. Next he had to clean out the interior in preparation for the carpenters who would shore up the floor, lay new linoleum, and partition off a rear corner.


Tom swung open the garage doors at the back of the building and light poured into the barren space, highlighting the swirls of dust raised by the breeze.


He explained that all the repair work would be done in a wooden shed at the side of the alley. “My Model A’s in there now. But I don’t expect we’ll be needing it much. Kaisers and Frazers aren’t going to break down.”




“Not until they’re, say, thirty or forty years old. I sure feel sorry for those suckers who just bought Plymouths and Chevies.”


He dragged the empty boxes out to the alley, swept floor and walls, even the ceiling, with a push broom, coughing and gagging on all the grey dust. While I watched from the doorway, my first reaction was that the store was too small, nothing like Bittner’s Pontiac out on the highway, where the showroom held seven or eight cars. This place could squeeze in two at the most. My father had sworn he’d drive nothing but a Pontiac. But it hit me that if my father could be dead maybe Pontiacs would disappear too. I suddenly wanted very much to see a Kaiser and a Frazer.




While the carpenters pounded a racket inside, Tom began painting the side of the building. It was a grey humid day and he was drenched with sweat. When he stopped for his fourth Coke break, sharing every other swig with me, he asked, “Who looks after you with your mom sick?”


“My sisters, Carla and Laura.”


“The twins!” Tom jumped up and slapped his forehead. ”Are they your sisters?”


I nodded.


“You lucky devil!” Tom grinned down at me as if I had done something wonderful and he was about to reward me. “Hey, I want to show you something.”


He led me into the repair shed and turned on a bare bulb hung from the ceiling over a hoodless Model A. Parts lay strewn on newspaper spread over the packed dirt floor. Tom slid an accordion file from a shelf, untied it, and fumbled through to lift out a brochure. He kicked the door shut and slowly unfolded the paper to reveal greasy thumbprints and facing silhouettes of two cars in profile. “God almighty! Aren’t they wonderful?”


Before I could grasp the forms, associate them with the shapes of familiar cars, he closed the brochure and returned it to the file, an anxious eye on the door the whole time. But I knew enough to realize that I had been granted a rare privilege. “They sure are swell,” I told him, already cherishing the secret I shared.




When I arrived the next day, Tom barely nodded hello, peering hard at the trim he was edging with a narrow brush. But he kept sneaking glances at me. Finally, he threw the brush into the grass and kicked at the cinders of the alley.


“Good god! I sure am stupid.” His hand fluttered as if he would reach out. But he just rubbed them across his tee shirt.


I looked to the spot he had been painting for some awful mistake. “What’s the matter?”


“When I found out whose brother you were, I should have remembered about your father.”


“That’s OK.” It bothered me to see him upset.


Tom retrieved his brush and picked grass blades off one by one. Then he cleared his throat. “Was your dad sick a long time?”


I shook my head. “He took me to a movie on Sunday. Then something happened Monday morning. He fell down in the bathroom when he was shaving. Mom wouldn’t let me look. I had to stay in my room when the ambulance men came to carry him out on a stretcher.” I had seen his face for just a second, the wide red gash on his forehead.


“Did you cry a lot?”


“No, not then.”




“The first time I went back to school after the funeral. When Chuck Robardee said something.” I sniffled back the tears that welled at the memory.


“Who’s Chuck Robardee?”


“Just some kid.”


“What did he say?”


“Everybody was lined up at the door for first bell and he yelled at me, ‘Hey, Bobbo, I hear your old man kicked the bucket.’” The stares of the others had prickled my flesh.


“Was that the fight you told me about?” I nodded and squeezed my blurred eyes shut. “Well, don’t you worry about him, Bobby. People like Chuck Robardee don’t matter one bit.”




It wasn’t until Laura and Carla finally had time to sort through the laundry on my closet floor that they noticed the grease and yellow paint on my clothes. I only told them that I was helping Tom with his work, nothing more, none of our secrets.


“Tom Maxville!” They laughed in unison, the way they always did when retreating into their twinhood.


“Oh, Bobby, is he your friend?”


“He’s swell to me.”


“I’m sure he’s very nice,” Laura said, but Carla caught her eye and the two of them were sputtering again.


“What’s wrong with him?” I was getting angry.


“He’s such a clown,” Carla said. “When we were seniors and he was a freshman, he was always following us around with a stupid grin, tripping over his big skinny feet to open doors for us.”


“He thinks you’re both pretty.”


“I guess so,” Carla said and squealed Tom’s name again, laughing by herself this time.


“I liked his brother,” Laura said, her eyes suddenly grave. “Everybody liked Jim. Before he shipped overseas we made a date to go out when he came back. It was sort of a joke, but we meant it.”


“Tom didn’t tell me he had a brother.” I felt betrayed.


“Jim was killed in the war,” Carla said.


Laura nudged her. “Who knows?” she said to me. “Tom may turn out to be just like Jim in a few years.”




Tom left a wall half painted and went out to tinker with the Model A, trying to force two gears back onto the transmission shaft. It surprised me that he never cursed in frustration. When my father struggled to assemble my two-wheeler he threw a wrench across the cellar and shouted curses. Tom just grunted, sighed, and talked coaxingly to the parts as if they were pets.


“My sisters remember you,” I told him.


He sat up with his squinting grin. “Really! Boy, I never thought they knew who I was. What did they say about me?”


Clown popped into my head. But I thought to say, “That you were very friendly.”


“I’d sure like to find a girl like one of them someday.”


“Laura would have gone out with Jim.”


 Tom’s face went blank at the name.


“They told me about your brother.”


“Oh yeah?” Tom slid back under the car and busily clanked metal.


“They said everybody liked him.”




His hammer rang against bare steel.


“Laura thinks you’re going to be like Jim someday.”


The pounding stopped and the silence was so great it scared me. I thought Tom would send me away right then, tell me never to come back. I stared at his face waiting for his mouth to move. But he grabbed ahold of the gears and strained to make them mesh.


After fifteen minutes in which neither of us spoke, Tom sat up, wiped more grease onto the thighs of his dungarees, and ran the fingers of both hands through his hair. The curls fell back into their normal confusion. “Maybe it’ll all fit tomorrow,” he said.


“My dad was great at fixing things,” I blurted.


Tom sorted through a pile of bolts and springs.


“Do you think about him much?”


“Sometimes. In the middle of the night a lot.” From my pillow I could look right at the closet in the hallway where my father kept his coats and suits. When I could not sleep, lying alone amid the creaks and shadows of the dark house, I would feel certain the closet door was opening, a dark figure emerging slowly, stepping toward me and then drawing back. I would shudder with the furious thumping of my heart but never screamed. I just lay there too frightened to close my eyes and wished I could run to my mother.


“How does it feel to think about him?”


“It must be awful to be dead.”


“I’ll bet your dad wouldn’t want you to worry about that.”




Finally Tom’s second coat dried and the interior of the store was ready. He rolled up the layer of newspapers and razors scraped paint splotches off the new linoleum. The partitioned cubicle was furnished with a great metal desk, a filing cabinet, telephone, typewriter, and adding machine. When West’s Furniture delivered five chrome-runged chairs for customers, Tom spent half a day positioning them and a good part of another day choosing a spot on the wall to mount the Kaiser-Frazer emblem.


As he climbed down the ladder, he stepped backwards, slowly 107 taking in the perspective of the emblem and white walls and chairs and blue linoleum. “This is terrific! This is great!” He pumped my hand, then seized me around the waist and hoisted me so high my head brushed the ceiling.


Tom’s boss, Mr. McQuade, the man who would sell all the cars, started coming in most of the time now, a crewcut ex-sailor pacing around the empty store in a brown suit pinched at the shoulders and hitched at the ankles. A man unused to ties and starched collars, he was constantly poking two fingers to pull them away from his neck. Once the empty file folders were arranged and order forms stacked in a desk drawer, he had nothing to do but pace and phone invitations to the grand opening. Every afternoon at three he placed an anxious call to headquarters and was reassured that the cars were going out on trucks any day.


Tom filled his hours tinkering out in the shed and running to pick up coffee and cigarettes for his boss.


At his own initiative, he bought twenty feet of butcher’s paper and printed a bright red sign to tape across the front: “COMING SOON—THE GREAT NEW”—a space for the door—“KAISERS AND FRAZERS.” When it was hung, he led me across Main Street and walked up and down the block to admire its effect.


“Boy, you can’t miss seeing that!” Then he worried the problem of fitting the whole town, people from miles around, into the showroom. His first thought was to pass out numbers like the bakery. Then he shrugged. “What the heck. Let them push and shove. Good gosh! All those people dying just to touch one of our cars.”


His enthusiasm overwhelmed me. I cared for nothing but the grand opening, the arrival of the cars. When I spoke to my mother on the telephone, heard her voice for the first time in almost two months, I talked only of Kaisers and Frazers, begged her to buy one.


“We’ll see,” she said, and I realized how weary she sounded.


I rattled on endlessly to Laura and Carla, who took to running into their room and slamming the door whenever I appeared. “No more, Bobby,” they pleaded, giggling together. But I made them promise to come the very first day, stay home from work if they had to.




I found Tom leaping about the alley early on a Tuesday morning, trying to do a cartwheel and sprawling on his back each time, roaring excitement. “Oh boy! Oh boy!”


“Are they coming?” I wished I could do a dance, but just stood there flatfooted and trembling.


“Coming? Don’t be crazy. They’re here! Right on the other side of that wall.”


I pointed at the building. “How?”


“They brought them in the middle of the night. This is a topsecret operation. One thing though. We have to wait till Saturday to show them. Everybody in the whole country has to wait until the same time.” He was so agitated I didn’t think he could hold out.


“That’s OK,” I told him. “It will be big news. Like hearing the war’s over.”


“Yeah! I never thought of that.” Tom clapped his hands. “Terrific!”


“When can I see them?” I asked, frightened that he would say no, that Mr. McQuade had forbidden it, so distraught I was on the edge of breaking down into blubbering.


“You? Right now, because you’re my helper.”


I bounced my weight from one foot to the other while he fumbled to fit a key into the padlock that secured the back doors. When it finally clicked, he pulled one door to an angle just wide enough for us to slip inside, then drew it closed at once behind him. He would not turn on a light even though the windows were still blanked white. Two large shapes shrouded in canvas filled the interior. We had to squeeze against a wall to stand between them.


Tom grabbed a corner of canvas from each car and counted slowly to ten. I swayed dizzily. He tugged and the canvas slid into a heap at his feet.


Even in the grey haze the cars dazzled, one gleaming black, the other glowing cream, their chrome brilliant. Their shapes were perfect, streamlined beyond my imagination. The absolute newness thrilled me. I inhaled wonderful odors of enamel, rubber, and fresh wax. Tentatively, unwilling to seek Tom’s eyes because he might signal No, I reached out and touched the metal of one with my fingertips, lightly not to mar the shine. It felt so cool, so absolutely smooth.


When I turned to Tom, my hand still wavering in mid-air, I saw tears streaming down his face. But he was smiling, his mouth in an arc of joy.


A vision of the future struck me: the streets of our town, the highway to the city, filled with rows of gleaming Kaisers, glowing Frazers, Tom at the head of them all behind the wheel of a black one with a girl prettier than Carla and Laura put together. Me right behind in the cream car, actually driving it, my mother radiant with health beside me, my awed sisters in the back. People all over pointing and saying, “There goes Bobby.” And somewhere, the two of them together, my father and Jim beaming down. All of us blissful forever in a land of Kaisers, a world of Frazers.




Walter Cummins' seventh story collection, Telling Stories Old & New, was published in 2015.  Recent reviews and essays are available on Zeteo Journal and The Literary Review.